Against the Tide: One College Leader Who Champions Socioeconomic Diversity

At a time when many colleges and universities are chasing ever-greater prestige, it is refreshing to talk to Nancy Cantor, a college leader who believes that higher education should be more inclusive than exclusive when admitting students.

Cantor is chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, one of the most socioeconomically diverse college campuses in the country. Before coming to Rutgers in 2014, she spent nearly a decade as chancellor of Syracuse University, a private nonprofit university in upstate New York.

During her tenure, she transformed Syracuse into one of the most economically and racially diverse universities of its caliber. And she forged connections with the city of Syracuse—by sending student tutors into local schools, for example, and providing full-tuition scholarships to graduates of those schools who qualified for admission to Syracuse.

Cantor believes that universities should act as “anchor institutions” in the towns and cities in which they reside, working with communities to address what at first glance appear to be intractable problems.

Some faculty members at Syracuse did not appreciate Cantor’s efforts to diversify the campus and revitalize the city. They became hysterical when the university saw its ranking drop in U.S. News & World Report, and accused her of allowing academic standards at Syracuse to slide, although there was little evidence to suggest those accusations were true.

When Cantor saw the opportunity to take the chancellorship at Rutgers’ Newark branch, she jumped at it. “It’s really a good fit with the things that I believe in, in terms of the role of higher education in serving the public good,” she told The Daily Orange, Syracuse’s student newspaper, in 2013.

In her first two years at Rutgers-Newark, she has made the university an active participant in efforts to renew the city—from promoting and leveraging arts and culture to encouraging entrepreneurship and economic development.

The Newark City of Learning Collaborative (NCLC) is a great example of putting her philosophy into practice. The university’s Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies has brought together 60 organizations throughout Newark to raise college attainment rates in this long-struggling city. As I wrote in my last two columns (see here and here), the NCLC is seeking to increase the share of Newark residents with postsecondary credentials from 17 percent to 25 percent by 2025.

As part of Cantor’s commitment to the program, she has vowed to increase the university’s enrollment of Newark residents from 6 percent to 10 percent among first-year students, and from 11 percent to 17 percent among transfers.

Cantor recently shared her thoughts with me about her leadership at Rutgers-Newark and on the work the NCLC is doing to promote college-going in Newark. Here is an abridged version of that conversation, edited for clarity.

Question: What do you mean when you use the term “anchor institution”?

Answer: I see anchor institutions as place-based organizations, committed to the sustainability of the place in which they are located—and it doesn’t mean in a parochial sense, in the sense that you limit your boundaries. It’s that you take seriously that you are an institution of the community, not just happen to be located in the community—so that you feel a sense of collective responsibility, a sense of interdependence, where the fate of your community is interdependent with its fate—and that you have an ability and a proclivity to bring to bear your intellectual and social capital in collaboration with the community.

Q: You often talk about “being of Newark, not just being in Newark.” What does that mean for the university?

A: I think what it means for us is that we feel, quite literally, we are a part of, not just haphazardly located in, Newark.

Universities used to follow the monastic model. You’d create this neutral territory off on a hill away, and you would attract to it cohorts of like-minded, committed people in the monastic sense and they would think deep thoughts together—walled off from the community surrounding them. Then the other end of that is the marketplace analogy—that everything is transactional. And your transactions, by that token, could be anywhere. So your students come from anywhere, your ideas go anywhere. In between those approaches is an anchor institution approach that says, no, we really are of this place. It doesn’t mean we’re not reaching globally. It doesn’t mean we’re not bringing people here who aren’t from here. But it does mean that we’re paying attention to what our identity is, as in and of the place.

As an anchor institution, we think about local procurement, we think about the fate of kids in schools in the district we’re in, and it’s not that we just want to help kids come here, although we want that. It’s that you’re cultivating their talent and seeding teams all over the place, but you care for the fate of the next generation of the place you’re in, and you care about the economy in the place you’re in.

Q: Your focus on enrolling low-income and minority students is refreshing at a time when so many schools are spending their resources recruiting the wealthiest students. What motivates you?

A: We may do it for social justice, but there’s a business case to be made for it. I mean all those institutions you write about that are chasing kids with merit scholarships, those kids are going to be like three kids in another 20 years. I sit at these higher education meetings nationally and I just want to go, ‘Good Lord, don’t you know anything about demographics?’ Our kids are the kids of the future.

Q: What do you hope comes out of the NCLC?

A: At the risk of sounding grandiose, I really think that what we’re trying to do at the highest level is to create a collaborative infrastructure for the long haul that is committed to the diverse next generation that this place—the greater Newark—represents. So I see this as creating this collective, collaborative infrastructure that brings everyone to the table—corporations, nonprofit CBOs [community-based organizations], higher education, public schools, other schools, various funders, and the city—to commit to that next generation.

Now in fact, as you know, there are lots of parts to the collaborative so that it is focused on disconnected youth, it’s focused on high-schoolers getting to college, it’s focused on adults with some credits but no degree. So there are lots of pieces. But at the highest level, to me, the most important thing about it is that this is going to commit all of the anchors—public and private—to the future social mobility of the city.

Q: How hopeful are you that the NCLC will be able to reach its goals?

A: I am uncharacteristically cautiously optimistic because I believe very strongly in the power of collaborative efforts. As long as things like NCLC can stay to the side of the vitriol [over the state’s efforts to reform Newark’s schools], I’m optimistic.

That being said, I think we have to find a way for people both nationally and locally to understand that these situations grew up over decades and decades of the wrong things happening, and you don’t turn that around in a year. So we can’t let people give up.

This post ran first in The Hechinger Report."

Author:

Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America.